With more people back in schools and offices, that means there are more people on the road. But time stuck at home apparently hasn't done any favors for our driving skills, based on new stats from the Department of Transportation that show the highest number of traffic fatalities in 15 years. Per a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report released last week, an estimated 20,160 people died in car accidents during the first six months of this year, an 18.4% jump over the same time period last year. It's also the largest number in the first half of the year since 2006, and the biggest half-year percentage spike since the agency started using its fatality recording system nearly a half-century ago.
The most noticeable jumps occurred in the South and the West, the figures show. "This is a crisis," Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in response to the report, per a release. "We cannot and should not accept these fatalities as simply a part of everyday life in America." Buttigieg also announced the agency's first ever National Roadway Safety Strategy, which will bring together data from across the entire DOT and create a "comprehensive set of actions to significantly reduce serious injuries and deaths" on the roads, the release notes.
Karl Minges, interim dean at the University of New Haven's School of Health Sciences, tells NBC News there's no single factor that's led to this situation, instead pointing to multiple factors, some tied to the cabin fever brought about by the pandemic. "The reckless behavior is likely the confluence of increased drug and alcohol use, lack of safety constraints (like seat belts and texting), and greater opportunities for speeding and reckless driving given still fewer cars on the road, which is linked to feelings of liberation," he says.
Indeed, the NHTSA released behavioral research data in conjunction with the fatality numbers that showed there were more incidents of people driving at higher speeds and without seatbelts during the first 15 months of the pandemic than there were before. Consumer groups say a big move by the DOT to address road safety has been a long time coming. "Progress on requirements and performance standards for lifesaving vehicle safety technology has been overdue for far too long," Cathy Chase of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety said in a statement, per USA Today. "Motorists and road users are being killed needlessly while proven solutions are deferred, delayed, or dormant." (Read more traffic fatalities stories.)